The word THE and when we shouldn’t use it.

When NOT to use the word THE, (the definite article).

In a sentence, when we mention something / somebody (a noun) for the first time, we normally use an indefinite article A or AN. This is because up till now, it is an unknown entity (person or thing).
For example:

  • My friend has A red car.
  • There is A big man at the door.

When we talk about this something / somebody the next time, we use the definite article because now we know exactly what / who we are talking about.
For example:

  • THE big red car is a Ford Grenada.
  • THE big man at the door wants to come in.

However, there are times when we do NOT need to use either article. Read the following:

  1. When we talk about things in general, we do not need the word THE.
    For example:

    • I like cheese, all kinds of cheese.
    • My friend likes books with pictures in them.
    • Boys like girls with long hair.
    • Dogs and cats make nice pets.
    • Apples are very tasty, don’t you think?
  2. a) For names and proper nouns, (again when we are talking generally) we don’t need the word THE.
    For example:

    • We are going on holiday at Easter.
    • I have lived in Spain for many years.
    • He goes to school on Mondays.
    • Mount Everest is over 8,848 metres high.
    • I speak English

    b) But we DO use the word THE, when the proper noun is plural.
    For example:

    • the United States
    • the Swiss Alps
    • the Canary Islands

There are many other times when we don’t need to use thw word THE, (more than I have listed here,) but most important are:

  • uncountable nouns (bread, water, coffee, sugar, etc.)
  • plural countable nouns (children, exams, dogs, cats, etc.)
  • days of the week (Monday, Tuesday; remember the capital letter in front of proper nouns)
  • names of places, (India, London, Australia, Canada, etc.)
  • languages and nationalities (English, French, Japanese, German, etc.)
  • careers (doctor, factory worker, teacher, shop assistant, etc.)
  • sports (football, tennis, golf, gymnastics, etc.)

Work it out: (Taken from FCE Testbuilder by Tony D. Triggs)
Extra words can easily get into a passage if the writer mixes up two different items of English grammar or vocabulary.  Both of these sentences are correct:

  • He booked in advance and the accommodation was very good.
  • Good quality accommodation is important to a successful holiday.

The first says ‘THE accommodation’ because reference is being made to particular accommodation, not
accommodation in general.  The second sentence doesn’t use any article because it refers to holiday accommodation in general.

I hope this helps some of you who are not sure when to use the definite article (the word THE) and when not to.

More on Definite Articles from the British Council. Then try this worksheet  Use of articles (in pdf format)

More on Special Cases – Use of Definite Articles, from the University of Toronto.


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